4 Winning Moments in Gym Class History

There's more to gym class than towel snapping and poorly played games of volleyball. Not much more, but certainly enough for 4 really great stories!

(Image credit: Flickr user The Library of Congress)


While Harriet Beecher Stowe was busy writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, her sister Catherine Beecher was busy blazing a different sort of trail -one that the Richard Simmonses of the world would be dance-walking down in the years to come. After learning about aerobic exercise at seminary, Beecher developed her own brand of calisthenics that included arm stretches, lunges, and squats. Then she got fancy and added live piano music to the mix. The result was an early version of Sweatin' to the Oldies. But it wasn't just fitness freaks who were moved by Beecher's music -several schools around the country embraced her program and added it to their curricula.


The jumping jack goes by many names -the star jump, the side-straddle hop. But whatever you call it, there's only one man to blame: U.S. Army General John "Jack" Pershing. The general came up with the eponymous exercise early in his career as a no-nonsense cadet captain at West Point. But it took a whole different Jack to take the exercise public. That honor goes to the late fitness guru and TV personality Jack LaLanne (pictured), who famously bounced around, both onscreen and off, in a trademark jumpsuit. Over the years, LaLanne became so synonymous with the jumping jack that many credit him as the inventor -an indiscretion that would have earned a punishment of 100 jumping jacks from the exercise's originator.


If you like kickball but hate the baseball-style rules, why not play it like they did in the 1920? To start, as many as 30 players could play at one time. Batters would place the ball on home plate and kick it without a pitcher. As for the fielders, they had to be at least 20 feet away from the kicker, and if the ball failed to reach them, the batter was ruled out.

But perhaps the strangest part of the game was the base running. When the ball was kicked, the runner ran to the base. Yes, the base: there was only one! A runner on base would either try to score when his teammate kicked the ball or stay put, meaning 14 players were allowed to stay on base at one time. If they didn't return home by the time the last batter on a team kicked, they were out. Room for improvement, yes, but also great heart.


In the 1940s and '50s, New York University's Dr. Hans Kraus conducted a series of fitness tests on American and European school children. In one study, he asked the kids to perform simple exercises such as leg lifts, sit-ups, and toe touches. The results were unnerving: 56 percent of American children failed at least one part of the test, compared to just 8 percent of Europeans.

When President Eisenhower heard the news, he responded by launching the President's Council on Youth Fitness. A decade later, President Johnson furthered the cause with the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, recognizing the country's fittest 15 percent. These days, the award is still a staple in phys ed classes, although you no longer have to be at the top of your gym class to get recognized. Those below average win the Participant Physical Fitness Award for showing "room for improvement" but also "great heart."


The article above, written by Adam K. Raymond, is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the January-February 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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